Archive for June, 2009

It’s not the regulation, it’s the execution

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

If you’ve been following the NTSB’s deliberations regarding Continental 3407, the Q-400 (Dash 8 derivative) that crashed in Buffalo this winter in what appears to have been a crew mishandling accident, you’ll know that this is going to be a landmark case. I’ve blogged on it twice; Time in Type and Travel? Buffalo Q-400, and Tail Stall?, but will use the mishap as a stepping off point to a broader topic.

The U.S. Congress has called for a comprehensive review of all commercial airline pilot training and certification programs. On the face of it, that might seem like a reasonable response but I have a hunch that the rules are probably adequate. The problem more often lies is in the adminstration of the regulations. The flash points here are an apparent disregard for airspeed, apparent unfamiliarity with stick pushers, a botched stall recovery, a lack of experience in icing conditions, and disregard of the sterile cockpit rule. There’s probably more but this is enough to chew on.

Rather than the regulations themselves, it might be more telling to explore how FAA is providing guidance to its inspector force, how the inspectors are interpreting that guidance, how new pilots are hired by the carriers, how training is actually being administered to new pilots by the airline and how sterile cockpit is enforced.

It’s clear that the intent, and I suspect the letter, of the regs are that pilots be competent in managing their aircraft in the conditions they are likely to encounter. The airline is on shaky ground in my view, when they say they weren’t required to teach the pilots about the stick pusher. Pilots need to know these things! How the aircraft got so slow that the pusher activated is perhaps another discussion entirely.

That the captain’s record wasn’t exactly the best, will be thoroughly reviewed in the report and it’s inappropriate for me to prejudge here but, again, airlines should know that if someone has a bad rap sheet, it’s a bad idea to entrust them with a multimillion dollar aircraft and 50 passengers. There will be more on this, I’m sure.

Lastly, it’s really unfortunate to give up more privacy to have FAA and airline management routinely scrutinizing cockpit voice recorders but if this is shown to be a critical distraction then maybe that’s less unfortunate than having innocents losing their lives. I’m betting that 90 plus percent of crews are diligent on sterile cockpit but the “bad apple” metaphor balls it up for the rest.

For those of us flying light GA aircraft, there’s lot to learn from this accident in general terms. If you make every attempt to be proficient with your aircraft, understand the nature of the weather in which you’re flying and stay focused on the task at hand, the outcome is likely to be much better.

My take is that there are enough regs, so let’s just use them regularly and efficiently with maybe a dab of common sense as well.